I recently had a surprising conversation with the directors of a large organisation about consensus.
Consensus needed to be reached with each of its 160 members for each and every decision – purchasing supplies, hiring staff, developing a new service. Everything.
Did decision-making hinder progress? Absolutely. Was it their preferred option? Passionately so – they wouldn’t change it.
This organisation had a strong reason for consensus – their commitment to the participation and involvement of every single member, over ‘making progress’. As time passed they adjusted their consensus model to become a looser ‘consent-based’ model, where decisions could proceed as long as there was general agreement that anyone who would want to be involved in the decision had been involved. This enabled some decisions to move more quickly.
How are decisions made in your team? Do you strive for consensus – wanting every team member to come on board with the decision through a process that adjusts and refines every idea? Decision-making by consensus is quite common amongst boards, leadership teams, the not-for-profit sector and collaborative teams – sometimes as a first option before realising it doesn’t work.
There will be situations that don’t suit consensus. It pays to be aware of these situations so that other options can be explored if needed.
Consensus is a general agreement about something: an idea or opinion shared by the whole group.
The main advantage of consensus is that power is shared. Another brilliant benefit is that the requirement for complete agreement means groups need to work through their differences of opinion. In doing so, the whole group considers a variety of perspectives.
Reaching complete agreement can nonetheless be tediously slow and frustrating. A single individual, however ill-informed on the issue, can hold up the entire decision-making process, sometimes for months on end.
For this reason, consensus is poorly fitted to critical or chaotic situations where an urgent response is required. Instead it is more appropriate for the leader to make a call without consulting the group.
Consensus-based organisations will sometimes prepare for this eventuality by establishing a decision ahead of time about the kinds of situations that could require the intervention of leadership. The leader receives the group’s blessing to act without consulting them, under certain circumstances.
We can infer from the Cynefin framework that consensus is actually not perfectly suited to decision-making in most situations.
Obvious situations have obvious answers. When best practice is well established you would expect everyone to agree. Obvious situations suit consensus. These are the kinds of situations that could be governed by a standard.
Complicated situations have many right answers and only experts may be able to see them – you know the questions you need to answer but not necessarily how to answer them. This is the kind of situation where guidelines are more appropriate than standards. Unless experts are available and everyone in the group is willing to defer to them, or ‘good practice’ is generally agreed, consensus could trip you up.
Complex situations are where disorder reigns. The situation is unpredictable. You don’t even know the right questions to ask. This is the domain of a lot of business situations today.
People often try to control these situations. The loudest voice might win out but the best response to complex situations is actually experimentation. Probing and sensing helps to understand the problem and look for possible solutions. If your team operates on consensus, your aim in complex situations should be to strive for agreement that the situation is indeed a complex one, so that experimentation is the obvious solution.
Chaotic situations are even more disordered – for example, a natural disaster, car accident or terrorist incident. An immediate response to stem the chaos is critical, which is why consensus would be plainly useless and unhelpful.
Consensus is great when there are obvious solutions. In other situations there can be false safety in numbers. Take for example 2008 when there was consensus, even amongst experts, that not a single economy would fall into recession in the following year. The consensus failed to appreciate how complex the situation was.
Unless your situation is simple and obvious, be aware of the pitfalls of trying to achieve consensus on decisions that aren’t well suited to it.